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[Editorial Response] Do Violent Video Games Make Killers?

First off, thanks to everyone who took the time to read my paper and an even bigger thanks to all those who responded. I was originally planning to reply with a comment here and there, but I've opted to do a follow up post instead since it's much more convenient. Below are a handful of comments that I've replied to.

"I dont like the study study with the brain scans, or the test of punishing their opponent with loud noise. Sure they are valid in the confines of the test, but are they valid or more importantly meaningful after the person has stopped playing for an hour or so. I think you could get the same response from watching a movie, or reading a book.

I know when I was young I would get really hyped up and aggressive after watching wresteling. Im sure my brain scans would have looked just like that. Parents need to judge how their children respond to any form of media."

You bring up a good point and though most of the studies I've referred to in my essay do not delve deeply into how violent video games can drive someone to commit pre-meditated murder, what they do focus on are the effects of short term anger. Most of the murders that occur in America are actually considered crimes of passion, so these studies are actually quite relevant, but they do not prove that video games are the singular or primary cause.

"Think that those agressive gamers might have family probelms.Their father comes back drunk,beats his wife and child and falls asleep.The kid plays video games just like me but when he sees his father doing this there is the snap-he starts harrasing his friends when he is older.The environment that surrounds the gamer is much more important that the games themselves so stop blaming games for violence!!1 Nuff said."

That's actually a dangerous assumption to make. You'd be very surprised at how often relatively normal people get convicted of horrible crimes. That said, again, I do not believe that video games inherently cause people to be violent, but they can become a catalyst given the right circumstances and environment. Having spent a lot of time at internet cafes in the past when games like Counter Strike were much more popular than they are now, I've watched some of my high school peers get into fights over things as trivial as a lucky headshot. Many of them weren't troubled or disturbed either. A lot of what I'm saying right now may seem to contradict my opinion at the end of the essay, but it doesn't. Games don't teach people to kill. That's my stance, but the question of how playing certain games or engaging in certain activities can set normal people off still remains unanswered.

"The research that has been done on violent video games that prove violent tendency after playing violent games is garbage science. In your article it states "Recent findings at the University of Missouri-Columbia have revealed that violent video games can actually trigger a reaction in the brain that causes players to behave more aggressively." In high school, I played on the football team. That was not simulated violence. That WAS violence. It did not cause me to act violent socially. And I started before the age of 16.(debunking the younger mind more susceptible theory) Pro football players, barring OJ Simpson whom is just a psychopath, are no more or less violent outside in their daily lives than other humans. Case closed."

If you read my essay again, you'll notice that I never once said that it was proven. Also, you're misunderstanding the statement I made in my article. The key word is "can." Had I instead written that they (violent video games) DO trigger a violent reaction, you would be right. Also, while you do present a valid argument, you're overlooking a lot of things. Obviously, sports don't cause people to become violent. That is true and the same goes for anything else, but one could argue that the rinkside brawls in hockey offer up an interesting counterpoint. Why is there fighting in hockey? Why did Dennis Rodman kick that camera operator? Why did Shaq react with hostility to the sideline interviewer? Why do massive fights break out at international soccer games? Why would someone kill another person at a little league game? You could say that the people responsible are merely psychopaths, but simple conclusions like that do little to explain anything in depth.

"I laughed at Jack Thompson and his "dendrite theory". Firstly 'cause I know it's impossible, once a neuron (dendrites are part of a neuron) grows to maturity it doesn't fix itself, it's just replaced. And secondly because dendrites are not at all specialized to any kind of brain activity, all they do is accept (receive, not produce) data."

That's correct and I definitely agree with you, but I have one thing to add also. The process of replacing dendrites (pruning) CAN be withstood if the neural pathway has been firmly established. It requires that an experience must be repeated roughly 300 times, though. That much is true, but Jack Thompson takes this out of context and tries to argue that the experience of killing a digital character makes it easier to kill a real life person.

"You introduce all your sources well and all your figures have a good foundation. I also think you can go further with the piece. You state a bunch of statistics, and that is good for beginning a paper, but there is room for it to grow. When you started talking about the school shootings and then boys' friendships being centered around video games, include some of your own opinions. This piece is good, do not misunderstand me, but there are so few of your own thoughts in it that it starts to get stale. I would like to see a follow up piece soon."

The reason I do not voice my thoughts until the conclusion is due to the fact that my professor made it clear that, for the purpose of this analytical paper, I wasn't supposed to. I'm glad you wanted to hear my side of it though and given that this is a small part of what is eventually going to be my master thesis (which is essentially a book), you can be sure that there will be a lot more to it.

"Due to the audience, your paper has garnered quite the positive response. Would that we all were Concerned Parents for Violence Awareness (fictional group) would your paper hold up as well? What was your intended audience? Did you intend to persuade, or was your paper designed to be a biased informational read?

If your aim was to preach to the choir, I believe you did a good job of putting some decent facts together for people to cite and ponder, but if you were trying to convince you might end up short on hard talking points.

All credit to you though for sharing your paper with us. Thanks."

Thank you for the constructive feedback. I've come to learn a lot of things in the recent months since I finished this paper and, looking back on it, there are definitely a lot of areas where I would like to improve. Luckily, as I mentioned earlier, this will be the subject of my master thesis, so the next time around (in approximately two years), I'll be able to cover a lot more. To answer your question, my targeted audience was the average middle-of-the-road parent who's worried about media violence, but skeptical of sensationalist news reports. I didn't want to go for something too heavy handed as I was still in the process of getting my head wrapped around all the facts, research, and everything so I pulled the punches quite a bit.

Do Violent Video Games Make Killers? By: John Duong WARNING: Lengthy post.

This is an essay I wrote for my Mass Communications course a few months ago. Due to the obscenity filter, I've had to insert a period in between certain words.

Headline

In less than four decades since its introduction into the mainstream market, video games have managed to become one of the fastest growing mediums in the entertainment industry with millions of consumers around the world dedicated to what has become a favorite pastime for many of today's youth. According to a study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, nearly a third of those who actively play video games are under the age of 18. With the majority of the most popular games being aimed at "hardcore" audiences, particularly the hormone driven, adrenaline hungry teenage male, it comes as no surprise why titles like Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War become so successful. They are hyped at every opportunity and every convention long before their release date arrives. Eventually, word travels to the schoolyard and it's not long before every kid wants a copy. Gears of War, a mature rated sci-fi shooter for the Xbox 360, had the media and online community buzzing nearly two years before it came out in November 2006. Thanks to the exorbitant amount of funding Microsoft had allotted for its promotional campaign, Gears of War became an instant hit, selling out in several stores on the day of its release. It continues to be one of the most popular online games on the Xbox Live Network to date. This generation of gaming is also particularly noteworthy due to the unprecedented demand for realism. With the ongoing discovery of new technological advancements that are allowing developers to create increasingly lifelike 3D images, parents are becoming more concerned about what their kids might be exposed to, namely games that seem to glorify violence and mayhem. Noted professor, Director of Comparative Studies at MIT, and frequent columnist for PC Gamer magazine, Henry Jenkins, states that roughly one-fourth of players ages 11 to 16 show the most interest in games that have been rated M for Mature by the ESRB. With news reports of how a game called Doom played a significant role in the preparation and training of the two shooters involved in the Columbine massacre, the debate over whether there is a direct link between violent video games and youth violence has become one of the most controversial and widely discussed topics in the country today.

Legislation
"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" is displayed on a monitor at left
as Sen. Joe Lieberman and others look on during a news conference.

For those who are convinced of the negative influences violent video games have, the link has been all, but proven. However, despite the lack of hard evidence, researchers have still been able to determine through extensive testing that while video games may not be the primary cause of violent behavior, they still may play a significant role as a contributing factor. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, young participants were chosen at random to play either a violent or non-violent video game for approximately twenty minutes. Afterwards, they were each asked to play a competitive s.tyle game against another person who would be joining from a separate room. Participants were also told that at the end of each round, the winner would be allowed to punish the loser by sending a loud blast of noise through their headphones with a volume range of 1-10. During one of the sessions, attendants made it clear to the players that the noise, if set at level 8 or higher, could potentially cause severe damage to their opponent's hearing, who did not actually exist for safety reasons. Those who had earlier been playing non-violent video games sent lower level noises than those who had just finished playing violent video games. In spite of the warnings, many of the subjects from the latter groupstill blasted their imaginary partners with high level sounds. Dr. Brad Bushman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, states that the brain scans they took showed significant differences in those who played violent video games and those who didn't. Results taken from another related study at the Indiana University School of Medicine also support this claim as it was discovered that those who were engaged in playing violent video games showed a large amount of activity in the amygdala; a portion of the brain that becomes active in life threatening situations, initiating a fight or flee response.

Brain Scan

Other researches are more alarmed by the potential increase in aggressive behavior that can result from long term desensitization and isolation. Recent findings at the University of Missouri-Columbia have revealed that violent video games can actually trigger a reaction in the brain that causes players to behave more aggressively. Jack Thompson, a longtime attorney and moral crusader who has made his name fighting against the video game industry, agrees wholeheartedly. "The games are a training ground for aggression," says Thompson. "You actually grow neural pathways called dendrites that enable you to perform more easily the physical acts of violence. Plus, from a psychological perspective, to act out of virtual violence, in a virtual setting, is more damaging than just viewing it. You enter into the violence, you become the protagonist." In 2004, Oakland police apprehended a ragtag group of teenagers and young adults who took their experience from the living room to the streets and charged them on numerous counts for murder, theft, and trespassing. Many of the perpetrators identified violent video games as the main source of inspiration for their crimes. According to a CBSNews.com Q&A, the leader of the gang was also allegedly using Grand Theft Auto III as a training device for his partners. "We played the game by day, and lived the game by night," admitted one of the youths.

Despite the amount of evidence collected by various researchers, there is still overwhelming doubt and skepticism lingering in the scientific community. Whether the relationship between aggressive behavior and violent video games is a causal one has also yet to be determined. From the viewpoint of proponents like Henry Jenkins, video games have been unfairly targeted by the news media in an attempt to exploit and manipulate their audience. After the Virginia Tech tragedy in April 2007, both Jack Thompson and Dr. Phil McGraw incorrectly predicted that the authorities would eventually discover that the killer responsible for the attack had also played violent video games. The fact that so many experts reached this conclusion preemptively without show of evidence is not particularly surprising due to the number of times mass school shootings have been linked with video games in the past. However, according to the results of the Safe School Initiative set up by the U.S. Secret Service in 2002, only 12% of the attackers convicted in school shootings brought in for questioning showed an interest in video games. By contrast, 37% were discovered to be far more interested in their own writings and 51% acknowledged their interest in other forms of media such as books and movies. Even though these statistics seemingly point towards violent media in general as the main cause, the findings actually indicate there was no single characteristic or factor that tied them all together, except for the fact that they were all male. They had all come from different settings, ethnic backgrounds, family structures, and age groups ranging from 11-21. The traits they exhibited also did not fit in with the usual clas.sification that is often referred to by media analysts and experts.

Contrary to popular belief that all mass school shootings are committed by anti-social delinquents who roam outside the various social circles, almost half of those surveyed were actively involved in extracurricular activities, organized clubs, and sports teams. Only a third considered themselves loners and less than 15% claimed that they had no close friends. Dr. Cheryl K. Olson, who works as the co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital, came to a similar conclusion during a study she conducted in 2007 with a sample group of 1,254 participants from two different states. "We found that children who play M-rated games are actually more likely to play in groups - in the same room, or over the Internet," said Olson. "Boys' friendships in particular often center around video games."

Group

The notion that violent video games can also increase the potential for aggressive behavior also comes into question. In a written publication for ScienceDirect, Christopher Ferguson, a Ph. D faculty member working within the Department of Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice at the Texas A&M International University, states that after analyzing numerous studies on the impact of violent video games, he concludes that although violent video games seem to cause aggressive thoughts, they do not necessarily result in aggressive behavior. "Observing that laboratory results for "aggressive thoughts" are much stronger than for 'aggressive behavior' is not unexpected," notes Ferguson. "It comes as no surprise that individuals just exposed to a violent video game in a laboratory should be thinking aggressive thoughts. The important question is whether these 'thoughts' then transfer to aggressive behaviors. For example, an individual exposed to a scene depicting suicide is highly likely to be thinking thoughts related to suicide topics, but will this necessarily increase the likelihood of that individual committing suicide, particularly if he or she had not been previously considering it." Henry Jenkins doesn't seem to think so, however. "Children at a pretty young age -- certainly by the time they reach elementary school -- are capable of making at least crude distinctions between more or less realistic representations of violence," Jenkins argues. "They can be fooled by media which offers ambiguous cues but they generally read media that seems realistic very differently than media that seems cartoonish or larger than life." He also points out that the experience of child's play is equivalent to the experience of playing a video game. Normal children can distinguish where the line that divides reality and imagination is drawn. Once they exit the realm of pretend play, they revert back to their usual selves.

comic

Due to the fact that research into the influence of video game violence is still in its early stages, it's impossible to determine the true extent of the effects. However, that still does not excuse the misconduct of the news media and all other political groups that are guilty of oversimplifying the nature of several youth crimes in order to get a rise out of millions of worried parents across the country who are looking for easy answers. By placing the blame primarily on violent video games, they are essentially taking away a killer's responsibility to account for his/her own actions. Many critics cite that imitation is a form of learning, but to suggest that any mentally healthy person would apply the rules of the virtual world in real life situations, simply because repetition has engraved it into their mind, is a bit of a stretch. What we learn in one particular video game may be applied to other similar video games perhaps i.e., when playing a light gun game, one must usually point outside the arcade cabinet to reload, but there isn't any evidence to prove that someone would interpret this as the proper way to reload a real life firearm. A child or teenager would have to be deeply disturbed and troubled to begin with in order to react to a real life incident, such as a mass murder, the same way he/she would if it happened in a video game. Just as we know for a fact that guns don't kill people, neither should we believe that video games do either.

Sources

"Game Player Data." Entertainment Software Association. ESA. 9 Aug 2007 http://www.theesa.com/facts/gamer_data.php.


Jenkins, Henry. "Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked ." The Video Game Revolution. PBS. 9 Aug 2007 http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html.


Sohn, Emily. "Video Game Violence." Science News for Kids 24 Jan 2007: p1-1.


Leblanc, Warren. "Playing with violence." Irish Times 10 July 2007: p3.

Worthy, Kym. "Why violent video games may be worse than other media violence." Michigan Chronicle 11 Oct 2005: p A1.


Jenkins, Henry. "A Few Thoughts on Media Violence...." Confessions of an Aca-Fan. 25 April 2007. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 9 Aug 2007 http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/04/a_few_thoughts_on_media_violen.html.

Vossekuil, Bryan. "The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States." May 2002 28-31. 9 Aug 2007 http://www.secretservice.gov/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf.


Wencis, Valerie. "Most middle-school boys and many girls play violent video games." Massachusetts General Hospital: News and Information. 29 June 2007. Massachusetts General Hospital. 9 Aug 2007 http://www.massgeneral.org/news/releases/062907olson.html.


"Researcher Finds Scant Evidence Linking Violent Games With Aggressive Behavior." Gamepolitics. 19 Feb 2007. Gamepolitics. 9 Aug 2007 http://gamepolitics.com/2007/02/19/researcher-finds-scant-evidence-linking-violent-games-with-aggressive-behavior.

Images used in this editorial were found at:
MSNBC
(
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6569186/)
(http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/16099971)
ParentsTV
(http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/videogames/reviews/studies.as)
Aeropause
(http://www.aeropause.com/archives/2006/08/violent_games_a.ph)